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Spain's best-kept secret: Zaragoza

09:00 AEST Thu Nov 18 2010
Zaragoza on the River Ebro in Spain's north-east is in a valley with desert, thick forest, meadows and mountains.

It's rich in folklore, local gastronomy and has a trilogy of landmarks: Basílica del Pilar, La Seo Cathedral and Aljafería Palace. It's a crossroads between Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao and Toulouse in France. They're all around 300km from Zaragoza. Ice and snow sports are popular there and the nearby Pyrenees have many of the country's best ski resorts.

Despite all this and the fact it's Spain's fifth largest city, Zaragoza isn't a place we hear about. While it hosted World Expo in 2008 and drew thousands of visitors, it still is one of Spain's lesser-known cities. We asked Kelly Landry to see what makes it so special.

She found a lively city with the charm and soul of a small town. It's crammed with cafes, tapas bars and a hectic nightlife. Historical sites cover Roman, Islamic and Christian civilisations.

It didn't take Kelly long to realise that to understand Zaragoza, you need to think as a local. She set out with guide Ana Naya to wander and explore.

Aljafería Palace

One of Zaragoza's top historical attractions, Aljafería Palace is the largest example of Islamic-Spanish architecture from the Taifas period. It is the only large building from Muslim rule in Spain outside of the Andalusia region. The fortified palace was built as a pleasure place for Muslim leaders in the 11th century and is a wonderful example of the layers of Zaragoza's history. The Troubadour Tower predates the palace. It was constructed in the ninth century.

Zarazoga was captured by Alfonso I of Aragon and the palace became the residence of Christian kings of the Kingdom of Aragon. It was the birthplace of Saint Isabel of Portugal in 1271 and was the royal residence of Peter IV of Aragon.

In 1492 the chambers became the palace of Catholic kings, and in 1593 was converted into a military base and then quarters. Renaissance designs can be seen in the moat and gardens. After suffering many alterations and imperfections over the centuries, it was restored in the 20th century and now houses Cortes, the autonomous community legislative assembly of Aragon.

Restaurante Montal

The Montal family is synonymous with wonderful food. Their gourmet shop was founded in 1919 and is now managed by the fourth generation. It's in a 16th-century Renaissance palace with ornate Gothic interiors with a cloister of shells and 12 marble pillars.

Quite apart from the beautiful surroundings, the food is not to be missed — those in the know say you will eat like a king at Montal. While Kelly endorses the Spanish tradition of a long lunch and maybe a siesta between 2pm and 5pm, she and Ana decided to push on.

Basilica Del Pilar

In Zaragoza's main square, the Basilica venerates the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title Our Lady of the Pillar. Pilgrims from around the world visit a shrine to the Virgin Mary, a piece of stone pillar on which she is said to have appeared to a 1st century saint. Many churches have been built on the site and the current one, in Baroque style, has been there since 1681.

El Plata Cabaret

When the sun goes down and everyone's refreshed from their afternoon siesta, the town comes alive, particularly in the El Turbo bohemian district.

El Plata Cabaret, in a small historical theatre, has nightly performances in its courtyard. Described as a blend of Moulin Rouge and traditional Spanish cabaret, it's all about noise, colour, singing and dancing. It was created by director Bicas Luna who put Penélope Cruz in one of her first films.

There are sessions a 4pm, 8pm and 11pm — and you just pay for your drinks.

La Republicana

Kelly and Ana were ready for some food after the excitement of the cabaret. La Republicana is one of Ana's favourites. It has a modern edge, setting it apart from traditional tapas restaurants. They tucked into stuffed peppers, Canary Island-style potatoes with spicy sauce, courgette and white fish pie and blue cheese and caramelised onion toasties.

It's an old-fashioned restaurant decorated with a mix of Hispanic retro knick-knacks, lots of pictures and there's a piano anyone is welcome to play.

Related gallery: Vibrant Valencia

Related gallery: La Tomatina: Valencia's huge tomato fight

Related gallery: Running with the bulls in Pamplona

Location

Zaragoza, mid-way between Barcelona and Madrid in Spain.

Cost

Emirates has flights to Madrid from:
  • Perth $1711
  • Brisbane $1735
  • Melbourne and Adelaide $1743
  • Sydney $1762

Theses fares are available only online to the first people to book. For more information, visit www.emirates.com/getaway.

Prices correct at November 18, 2010.

For further information

Emirates
Ph: 1300 303 777
www.emirates.com/getaway

Aljaferia
Calle de los Diputados
Zaragoza
Spain 50071
Ph: +34 976289685

Restaurante Montal
Torre Calle Nueva, 20
Plaza San Felipe 50003
Zaragoza
Spain
Ph: +34 976 298998
www.montal.es

Basilica del Pilar
Plaza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, 19
Zaragoza 50003
Spain 50003
Ph: +34 976 397 497

El Plata Cabaret
Calle Cuatro de Agosto, no 23
Zaragoza
Spain 50004
Ph: + 34 647 619 302

La Republicana
Street Mendez Nuñez, 38
Zaragoza
Spain
Ph: +34 976 39 6509
www.larepublicana.net

Visas: Australians travelling to Spain do not require a visa.

Electricity: 230V at 50Hz using European plugs.

Time zone: GMT +2.

Currency: The euro.

International dialling code: +34.

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